April 28, 2009 / 7:08 AM / 11 years ago

Australia, PNG warn Fiji of suspension from bloc

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia and Papua New Guinea issued a final warning to Fiji’s coup leader Frank Bainimarama on Tuesday to commit to fresh elections or face immediate suspension from a forum of South Pacific nations.

Fiji's Military Commander Frank Bainimarama delivers a statement to news media at Queen Elizabeth Barracks in the nation's capital Suva in this December 7, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

Bainimarama has until May 1 to set a timetable for elections in Fiji or his country faces suspension from the 15-nation Pacific Islands Forum, which has its headquarters in Fiji’s capital of Suva.

With the deadline looming, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Michael Somare said the latest developments in Fiji, where the constitution was revoked and judiciary sacked, had hardened the resolve of Forum countries.

“The Forum has taken a stand. The Forum gave an ultimatum that if Fiji does not agree to set the date for elections, then the Forum has no option,” Somare told reporters in Canberra after talks with Rudd.

Somare, the elder statesman of the South Pacific, has worked to keep fellow Melanesian nation Fiji involved with the Forum, but said he was losing patience with Bainimarama’s regime.

Fiji was plunged into a new political crisis in early April when the country’s President Ratu Josefa Iloilo revoked the constitution and sacked the judiciary, with the government imposing strict curbs on media reporting.

Bainimarama, who seized power in a bloodless coup in December 2006, had promised elections by mid 2009, but now says elections won’t be held before 2014.

“We have bent over backwards. I have tried my best. But they have decided to suspend the constitution,” Somare said. Rudd said Fiji could also be suspended from the 53-member Commonwealth group of mainly former British colonies by September if Bainimarama does not make progress towards democracy.

“Australia’s position is hard line,” Rudd told reporters.

“You cannot sustain within a family of democracies within the Pacific Island Forum, or a family of democracies within the Commonwealth, a government like that of Fiji which simply treats with contempt the most fundamental democratic institutions and press freedoms of its people.”

Rudd said Commonwealth ministers will meet on May 15 to discuss developments in Fiji, Rudd said. Fiji has suffered four coups and an army mutiny since 1987. The country of about 900,00 people is racially divided, with tensions between majority indigenous Fijians and ethnic Indians.

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